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Regional & National

Bush may have missed his chance to build GOP majority

March 22nd, 2007 11:15 pm by Knight Ridder



WASHINGTON - President Bush's dream of leaving an enduring Republican majority as his political legacy is slipping from his grasp.


His own popularity has plummeted as Americans have turned against his war in Iraq. Last November, he lost control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and with them he lost the power to control the capital's agenda and shield his administration from embarrassing investigations. The news media, too, have largely turned against him.


Now, a new poll released Thursday confirms that the country's underlying political landscape has turned sharply against Bush's party and toward the Democrats on bellwether issues such as the use of military force, religion, affirmative action and homosexuality.


"It's going in the other direction," said Andrew Kohut, the director of the Pew Research Center, which released the survey. "The Republicans have really suffered a number of setbacks. It's not going toward a Democratic majority. But there's no more progress toward a Republican majority."


"But Democrats shouldn't start popping the champagne yet," said Steve Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. "This group that leans Democratic is still very much up for grabs, depending on candidates and events."


The idea of a durable political majority - like the one the Republicans enjoyed for decades after the Civil War or that Franklin D. Roosevelt built for the Demo- crats in the 1930s and 1940s - might be a quaint notion in an era in which a third of the voters refuse to align with either major party for more than one election.


But Bush and his political adviser, Karl Rove, thought they'd found the keys to securing what began as the so-called Reagan Revolution and seemed to gain strength with the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.


They called it "compassionate conservatism," a blend of appeals to religious and economic conservatives coupled with a pitch to moderate, suburban independents for education revisions, tax cuts and an expansion of Medicare.


A solid Republican majority seemed within reach, especially after the country rallied behind Bush after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Bush's Republicans defied history by gaining seats in the 2002 midterm congressional elections, which usually tilt against the president's party. That year, the Republicans moved into a tie with the Democrats in terms of voters' self-proclaimed party identification: 43 percent called themselves Democrats or leaning that way, and the same percentage called themselves Republicans.


Now that's all gone.


Today, 50 percent of Americans call themselves Democrats or lean that way, while 35 percent call themselves Republicans or lean that way.


"Over the past five years, the political landscape of the nation has shifted from one of partisan parity to a sizable Democratic advantage," the Pew analysis said. "But the change reflects Republican losses more than Democratic gains."


"That's due to dissatisfaction with the White House," Kohut added in an interview.


Dissatisfaction with the White House stems from many sources. Soaring federal spending. Budget deficits. Illegal immigration. Hurricane Katrina. And, of course, Iraq.


At the same time, the country is becoming more amenable to the Democratic view of such divisive issues as God, war and welfare, the Pew survey found.


Kohut attributed some of that to what he called the "cycles of history." (EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE) Some examples: -The ranks of those who completely agree that prayer is an important part of their daily lives dropped from 55 percent in 1999 to 45 percent. -More Americans in their teens or early 20s call themselves secular. The survey found that 12 percent of young people in 2006 and 2007 considered themselves atheists, agnostics or not identified with any religion, up from 8 percent four years ago. -Those who think military strength is the best way to preserve peace dropped from 62 percent in 2002 to 49 percent. -More people support affirmative action, up from 58 percent in 1995 to 70 percent today. -The percentage of Americans who think the government should help needy people even if it increases the national debt rose from 41 percent in 1994 to 54 percent today. But while Democrats unified - and won - in opposition to Bush's policies, they haven't produced the kind of agenda that Schier thinks is necessary to build their own majority. "What we're seeing is that no party has been able lock down a sustained advantage," Schier said. For the full Pew survey, go to http://people-press.org/reports/pdf/312.pdf

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